State of the Hogs: Matt Harris

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D. J. Williams turned up field after a short reception near the 10-yard line. He had a full head of steam. Safety Matt Harris squared up with the receiver and put his face mask square in his numbers. He wrapped his arms around the waist of the receiver turned running back and they went to the ground.

Harris went backwards, his helmet snapping back and hitting hard to the turf. Williams landed on top, down at the 9.

As often happens, the offensive player did most of the hitting on that play. Some of Williams' offensive teammates yelped in celebration. They liked to see one of their own delivering the blow. I smiled. I'll always remember it as the play I decided the Arkansas football team might finally be all right at free safety.

Harris doesn't remember the specific play. There have been too many hits, too many tackles this spring for any of them to stand out. He smiled when it was detailed, then offered what might be the creed of SEC defenders, particularly SEC safeties.

"Live to play another down," Harris said. "Get ‘em down. The knockout hits come every now and then and you want to deliver them. But mostly, you better just get ‘em down and let your defense live to play another down."

Someone asked this week for specifics to watch in the Red-White game at 6 p.m. Saturday. The context of the question was offense, because that's been the focus since Bobby Petrino took over as head coach. If you want to pick out something along those lines, watch to see if quarterback Casey Dick — really all of the QBs — step up in the pocket on passing drops. It's been a focus of Petrino all spring, and has been a positive development.

But I'll probably watch Harris, perhaps the answer to Arkansas' multi-year search at free safety. It's been awhile since the Hogs had steady play at the back of the defense. Harris, junior looking for his first UA letter, moved to the top of the depth chart three days into spring. He's been there for every snap, every drill since.

It's been like the clouds have been lifted over Harris, never a factor while Reggie Herring was in charge of the UA defense. Herring seemed to think Harris was a strong safety, although that was never his position in high school. He played corner as a junior, free safety as a senior. Herring finally moved Harris back to free midway through last season, but playing time did not materialize.

After the way Harris has played this spring, he'll play next year. Early this spring when the linebackers were having a hard time making plays in the new zone scheme, it seemed like Harris was making every tackle in every scrimmage. Lately, things have gotten better at linebacker, although that is still an area of inconsistent play.

What most have known about Harris in his first three years centers on his legacy. His father is Cliff Harris, 10-year star free safety for the Dallas Cowboys. A six-time pro bowler, Harris played in a record five Super Bowls and is in the Dallas Ring of Honor. It's a legacy Matt loves to talk about. If you play, Madden's NFL video game, you may know that Cliff Harris is the free safety.

"He was retired when I was born and it was a long time before I knew he was a star," Matt said of his father. "But starting at about age 10, when I was playing peewee football, I figured it out. Everyone else was making him out as a big deal and I started to figure out why."

Cliff coached his son then, and they still discuss the mental aspects of the game. They've watched tapes of those Super Bowls, wins and losses.

"They are old VHS tapes," Matt said. "We even watch the Steelers games and those were rough. We've talked a lot of football through the years. "I think the passion and emotion that I have for the game I got from him. He's taught me intensity and knowledge. There have been a lot of little tips through the years.

"What he taught me more than anything is that you can't go into a game like a wild man. He listened to classical music before games. He told me that he tried to have controlled intensity and use that to explode into the hit."

Teammates tagged Cliff Harris as "Captain Crash," and there's nothing Matt would like more than to deliver some of those same type tackles. But it's not what he goes out to do on a daily basis in defensive coordinator Willy Robinson's style.

"I think more than delivering that big hit, what we pride ourselves is in getting a lot of hats around the football," Matt said. "That means running to the ball. You want to deliver that crushing blow, you do. But if it's third-and-4, and it's you and the running back, don't worry about the knockout. Get him on the ground and get off the field.

"Delivering the big blow, that's part of the game. Not passing up a hit, that's football. You hold your ground and get him to the ground on third down, though. Get off the field."

It's what is being preached by the Hogs' new secondary coaches. Robinson has the safeties and Lorenzo Ward has the corners. Both have NFL experience, something Harris recognizes.

"They have been at the highest level," Harris said. "They know defense. But they know how to teach us the proper techniques and that is the focus. They were both good college players, too. They have walked the walk."

It's a new system, featuring more zone coverages. But the man-to-man situations are still there, often in mixes that most might not recognize.

"It is a new system, very good," Harris said. "The main philosophy is about tackles and turnovers. The defense is sound. I think you are going to see that all of us tackle really well. And, our scheme forces you to play with your eyes and your head.

"We are more complex in pass situations. You are in zone, but when the crossing routes come, it switches to man pretty fast. There is a fine line between playing zone and man in this scheme. The zone turns into man quick. I think we are picking up on it."

That's what I've picked up on this spring. It should be fun to watch Saturday night.

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